The Tragedy of Love
Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year. Br Bede Mullens traces a line from Eden to Calvary.
‘The best-laid plans of mice and men
Go oft awry
And leave us nought but grief and pain
For promised joy!’
(Adapted from R. Burns, To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785)
Robert Burns’s famed lament appears to be equally true of God’s plans. The Lord has planted a vineyard on a fine spot, ‘a very fertile hill’, walled about and protected, fitted with everything needed to yield a fine vintage. For all that promise, the Lord’s people – the vine, or the tenants – only disappoint. Burns wrote his lines reflecting on the way great forces beyond human control may tear our lives apart, just as he at the plough unwittingly has turned up and destroyed a mother-mouse’s nest. But our readings lament a role-reversal: not our subjection to greater powers, rather the way we callous creatures confound the loving designs of God.
It was ever thus. God planted a garden in Eden, he sowed it with every kind of plant, ‘pleasant to the sight and good for food’, he watered it with rain and river, and made it secure. In this garden he placed Adam with Eve his helpmate, to till it and keep it and to enjoy it. Only, Adam and Eve were not content with the garden. In spite of all the good things they enjoyed, they lusted after the one thing forbidden to them. They preferred not to have the garden at all, rather than not to have total dominion over it. Like the tenants unwilling to yield up the vineyard’s crop, Adam and Eve betrayed the one who made them the gift in the first place.
The sin of Adam and Eve was ruinous: by grasping after the forbidden fruit, they lost everything, for themselves and their posterity. Their sin is called ‘original sin’, not just because it was the first sin to take place in time, but even more because it resulted in a definitive estrangement from God for all humanity after. Humanity in this state was bound to yield sour grapes. When the Lord took Israel under his wing, he knew this full well: his love was bound to be squandered. Isaiah’s song plays out the tragic quality of this love-story, in which Israel serves as emblematic of all humanity’s corruption. The prophet is playing best man, as if he were at a wedding, singing a song to celebrate the love of the Lord, the bridegroom, for his bride, Israel. All the promise is lost before the wedding is even over: the Lord’s gifts avail nothing to save his bride from self-destruction. What they deserve, Isaiah cries, is to be abandoned by God, even to be wiped out.
Though he might, though he even should, God does not give up on his beloved. God’s answer to this situation is to woo us more than he ever has done, to send his Son. Jesus Christ is God’s radical rescue plan for fallen humanity. He has given the Law and sent the prophets, the various ‘servants’ of the Gospel parable. They availed nothing, so he has sent his very Son, his only Son. In this Son, Son of God and Son of Man, God literally weds human nature to his divinity. To hear the parable, to think of human history, surely makes us conclude that this was foolish. If the tenants are so wicked, if humanity is so corrupt, was this last appeal not bound to end in failure too? Did God not realise that?
After 2000 years of Christianity, 2000 years of hearing the Gospel preached, we do not realise as forcefully as we should that Jesus was a failure and a reject. And that was how it was meant to be, even as the Scriptures say: ‘the very stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’. Only if we realise the extent of the failure, do we realise how marvellous is the subsequent vindication. In Jesus, God lets the line of history begun by original sin reach its climax, its awful but necessary conclusion. And from this hopeless end-point, God in Jesus commences a new line of history: ‘a new kingdom, given to a people who will make good its fruits’. History has been reset; God has made good on his plans. That is why Jesus’ resurrection is not just an event that concerns him: it concerns us all, it is the promise of our resurrection, of new heavens and new earth, a new creation.
In this new order of things, we are no longer held accountable for the original sin of Adam and Eve. Freed from that, we still have a long way to grow into our newfound freedom: old habits die hard. But none of us, at judgment, need be condemned for our sins. We shall be judged by the ultimatum delivered to us in Jesus. Are we willing to accept our need of Christ, to own up to the sin and failure which he alone can heal? Yes? Then we may be sure of forgiveness. Are we willing to share his vindication? To strip ourselves of those old habits – envy, lust, avarice, arrogance (you know the rest!) – and to put on the spirit of peace and kindliness and joy that Christ’s victory brings? Yes? Then we may be sure of the glory for which we were made.
Image: ‘Christ is the Keystone’: detail from the Sainte Chapelle, Paris, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP